Michelle Branch lived hard and fast in just five, formative years. She wrote an album at 17, dropped a chart-topping single a month after her 18th birthday, and was consequently plunged into the world of TLR and money-hungry music labels. At 21, she married her 40 year-old bandmate. By age 22, they had a kid together. And now, at 33, the singer-songwriter still allows that era to inform her identity– but those teen pop artist days don’t own her.
Fast-forward 14 years, and Branch identifies as many things apart from a teen superstar. She’s a divorcee, a Grammy winner, a young mom, a hopeless romantic. When she picks up the phone one afternoon in July, she’s off-duty in Omaha, Nebraska, doing laundry and phone interviews.
“I got out of my record contract in June of 2014, and basically started writing immediately after that,” she says about the songs that would contribute to her first solo album in 14 years, Hopeless Romantic. “I was newly divorced, newly dropped from my label, and suddenly had a lot to write about.”
That doesn’t mean that Branch hasn’t been writing music in the meantime, however. In 2006, she defied Warner Bros. Records and collaborated with Jessica Harp to form country pop duo, The Wreckers. Of course, in the eyes of Warner Bros. who were “salivating for another song on TRL” and still trying to hold Branch to her five pop album contract, a country collab was too high risk. They didn’t go for it.
“I financed it myself,” says Branch. “The more that people pushed back about it, the more I wanted to do it. The more it pissed me off.”
One Country Music Award music award, a number-one country single, and two shelved solo albums later, Branch was slowly, but surely, reclaiming her musical identity. “I think the pressure of having everyone seeing me as their money-making teen pop artist was making me want to rebel and go in any direction,” she says. Fortunately, Branch was able to steer that direction straight into her music.
But it turns out, being stuck at that major label machine, and every misogynist that comes with it, had Branch saying ‘no’ a lot– in uncomfortable scenarios, like “a [program director] putting their hand on your ass, or being at a studio where someone’s clearly hitting on you,” and to making disingenuous pop music.
“My advice is to stand your ground,” Branch says.
This mindset sparked the beginning of a bonafide rock record: Hopeless Romantic, which came out in April. A fateful meeting with producer (and now, finance) Patrick Carney of The Black Keys fame at a 2016 Grammy party sealed the deal and launched Branch’s visions of a rock album into fruition. The inspiration for her new sound, she says, came from other badass women in the music industry right now. Her current obsessions include Phoebe Bridgers and Mitski, and she names Tegan & Sara, HAIM, and Jenny Lewis among her biggest influences when making the new record. She even sought out her touring guitarist Megan McCormick after she saw her play for Jenny Lewis.
“I’m so, so happy that, when you come see the show, not only to have two women in my band, but to also have a female-fronted opener,” Branch stresses. She recognizes that people often pit women against each other in the music business (and, let’s be honest, in every other business). After all, reporters still seem to constantly include Vanessa Carlton and Michelle Branch in the same breath, not to mention their fake feud. Speaking to this, and to the reason why Branch plays with a lot of women, is a simple belief: “We’re stronger standing up for each other.”
With that in mind, plus a personal narrative of love and heartbreak, a Mellotron, a Fender VI, a 100 year-old Victorian house in Silver Lake, Michelle Branch and her band were reborn.
What people might not realize, however, is that the making of Hopeless Romantic was Branch’s first time recording independently since 2000, when she self-produced her first album, Broken Bracelet. While working with John Shanks on The Spirit Room (2001) and Hotel Paper (2003), and then John Leventhal on The Wreckers’ album, Branch says she was never encouraged to play her own parts. Branch confesses, “I always felt intimidated playing around them.”
So when Carney handed her an electric guitar to record the 14 songs that make up Hopeless Romantic, Branch was terrified.
“It was the first time I’d ever had anyone encourage me to do that,” she says. “As I got more comfortable with Patrick, I felt like it was a safe place to actually try shit.”
“Trying shit” a.k.a getting partially back to her DIY roots has produced a totally new, but oddly familiar Michelle Branch. While people loved her first two albums dearly, Branch was never an artist fans really got to grow with. Alt music fans are used to following local bands from crowded house shows, to headlining places like Great Scott, The Middle East, eventually The Sinclair, and just maybe, bigger venues like Royale and House of Blues. We actually witness the growth of these artists.
With Hopeless Romantic, and a slew of intimate North American shows and European festivals alike, Branch is reclaiming this rite of passage– one performance at a time.